Leveraging the System

Leveraging the System

How agencies can ensure the protection of people and property

For decades, public alerting systems have served as a critical notification tool for sending alerts to citizens’ smartphones, landlines and through broadcast channels. These systems have assumed even greater importance in recent years, due to more intense and frequent severe/extreme weather events, as well as more diverse non-weather emergency threats. From hurricanes and wildfires to active shooters, missing children and biological attack warnings, the need to keep citizens informed with accurate, realtime information is critical to protecting people and property.

On the heels of the Hawaii ballistic missile emergency alert “false alarm” and other incidents, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year announced changes designed to improve the integrity, efficacy and reliability of the nation’s alerting systems. The updated FCC requirements for Emergency Alert Systems adopts revisions to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) rules and sought comment on further measures to improve the effectiveness of both the EAS and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Primarily, the items the FCC want to see in the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) is secured logins, alert launch safeguards and a clear separation of the test environment from the live environment, including color codes for distinction.

WEA, as many readers know, is a public safety system that allows citizens to receive geographically-targeted, text messages alerting them of safety threats in their area. It was established in 2008 as a result of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act and was launched in 2012 and according to the FCC, the system been used more than 40,000 times to warn the public about impending weather, missing children and other emergencies, all through cell phone alerts.

The WEA alerts are sent through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to participating wireless carriers, who then push the alerts to mobile devices in the affected areas. Federal, state and local authorities have the ability to leverage IPAWS alerts to send messages within their own jurisdictions as well. IPAWS was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2006 to provide public safety officials with an effective way to alert and warn the public about serious emergencies and provide the public with life-saving information quickly. IPAWS is a modernization and integration of the nation’s alert and warning infrastructure.

For all of the benefits that IPAWS, WEA and public alerting systems can deliver, usage rates at the county/local level remain low. There are roughly 3,000 counties across the U.S., yet for a variety of reasons less than 1,100 of them utilize IPAWS. Given that IPAWS can reach the mobile phone of every citizen (who owns one), increasing the number of counties using public alerting systems will go hand-inhand with keeping more people safe.

Public alerting systems represent another tool in the toolkit that public safety officials should be using to protect citizens, alongside phone, text, social media, emergency sirens, etc. That said, the ability of agencies to better leverage public alerting systems and drive broader citizen participation comes down to acknowledging current challenges and following a set of best practices.

Public Alerting System Best Practices

As noted, county-level participation in IPAWS, in particular, is a work in progress. Fear of the “oops” factor if an alert is distributed (or not distributed) in error, the need for self-administered classes and training and commonly-held misperceptions about public alerting systems, in general, have slowed county uptake.

Extending the availability of public alerting systems to more citizens and maximizing the benefits these systems can deliver can be aided by following several best practices.

Complete IPAWS Accreditation Process

Emergencies take their heaviest toll on property and life when there aren’t effective communications that reach all audiences. The federal government released its strategic plan for IPAWS in 2010, and all government agencies can use the system for public messages in emergencies.

While qualified government entities can use IPAWS, they must first get accredited. To start, select an origination software provider that has an IPAWS Developer Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). Be sure your provider can launch alerts to employees and residents through voice, text, email, RSS feeds, website widgets, social media, and more, all from one interface.

Focus on growing citizen participation rate. IPAWS is a core but not the sole component of an effective emergency notification plan. The power and limitations of IPAWS demonstrate the need for a single initiation tool for all alert delivery channels as there will be circumstances when not all residents receive an IPAWS alert messages and no one solution hits every recipient on every device, every time.

By running ongoing campaigns to get citizens and government employees to sign up for alerts, you can increase the ability to reach more people during emergencies and severe weather. This is especially important in areas that have seasonal populations and higher rates of extreme weather events.

While IPAWS and FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alerts are federally managed national notification systems that local communities can use, many also choose their own notification systems or those offered by third parties.

Use FEMA Test Lab. FEMA has put forth tremendous effort to work with local jurisdictions and the emergency notification vendor community to grow enrollment. FEMA outreach and support efforts have contributed greatly to the success of IPAWS and growth in system use. Counties and other local jurisdictions should leverage FEMA’s enhanced test lab program, where they can log-in and send thousands of test messages to the lab to ensure the Emergency Mass Notification System they use works correctly. The test lab is essential because jurisdictions don’t want the first time they use IPAWS or a new feature to be during an actual emergency.

Ensure integration with vendor tools. Even as the use of public alerting systems is trending in the right direction, many public safety officials are still unclear about how effective IPAWS can be when used in combination with their existing mass notification systems. There is uncertainty about what constitutes an imminent threat for a WEA alert and several other questions about the way IPAWS works.

Public officials struggle in how to best manage multiple alerting systems and the various methods of disseminating alerts. By integrating with the right EMNS vendor, localities can reduce the complexity with a single source tool that can provide for all five avenues of dissemination through IPAWS: the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), Non-Weather Emergency Messages (NWEM), COG to COG, and public alert feeds.

We are also starting to see increased innovation to enhance system capabilities. First, by incorporating the IPAWS tool as an embedded workflow in an existing mass notification system build, IPAWS becomes a delivery endpoint rather than a standalone notification - which means that IPAWS users could simultaneously launch single emergency messages without having to duplicate the process for both IPAWS and the vendor notifications. Vendors are also adding new mapping features that can show users anywhere in the country an active IPAWS alert has been issued and where it was. By doing so, counties and other localities can see how peers are using the system and become more educated on best practices.

Make sure vendor meets updated FCC guidance. In May of 2019, FEMA - IPAWS in collaboration with the FCC and broadcast/ cellular providers will be incorporating several new enhancements to the current IPAWS system. These new broader capabilities will allow public safety officials to reach more citizens with longer messages and in multiple languages. Several new event codes and new alert types for Blue Alert and Live WEA Testing will be added as well.

With all of these new enhancements coming to IPAWS, it is imperative to make sure that your IPAWS provider is one that will be incorporating all of these new capabilities into their IPAWS Alert Origination tool for your expanded use. Many of the IPAWS tools currently available to public safety officials across the nation are not in compliance with the IPAWS functionality requirements that are in place today. Whether or not they will become compliant with the current standards and/or incorporate the new enhancements should not be assumed, and investigated thoroughly. One should use caution when determining the best tool to secure that will allow you to make the full use of IPAWS and more importantly, one that will be your responsible partner in saving lives.

Test regularly after implementation. Once an emergency notification system is implemented, it’s important to make ongoing testing a part of the regular schedule as it provides organizations with insight on vulnerabilities and risks associated with emergency communications. This will help teams identify and try new methods to streamline message transmissions. Testing can also help the community maintain its awareness about how they can expect to receive emergency messaging in case of an emergency. Not only is it important for administrators and recipients to understand the system and the technology, but this is also about building their confidence in interacting with it.

Preparedness is key. Preparedness is perhaps the most important element of having a successful public alerting system because having a good plan in place is the best way to combat unexpected emergency events. This includes determining who has permission to send out different messages and having outlines prepared that include the purpose of the notification, succinct information and an outline for response options. A part of being prepared, ironically, is understanding that not every situation can be prepared for. Even when there isn’t enough the optimum amount of information available, it’s important to still send out notifications telling citizens to protect themselves but lets them decide on the best plan of action based on their individual situation.

Time is of the essence when alerting the public rapidly and accurately. Social media can be a valuable channel for reaching citizens, but it is also the source of misinformation that can derail public safety and emergency response efforts.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Security Today.

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